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Gary Younge
Back in the hunt

Straw "noted" concerns, assured Jackson that media reports had been "entirely speculative" and promised to "bear the matters raised in mind". His response was prompt, polite and essentially dismissive.

It would be easy for the Labour leadership to dismiss the Alliance. This is an organisation with a predominantly Tory membership whose central aim has been to preserve the right to kill foxes and which readily compares Tony Blair to Adolf Hitler. One poster which bore its logo depicted the gay agriculture minister, Nick Brown, as a man "who loves gays and buggers the countryside". The logo also appeared in the magazine Earth Dog, Running Dog - from which the Alliance distanced itself. The publication described the black MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Oona King, as "typical of her species", and told her to "direct her talents to advising her scrounging supporters on how to claim more handouts".

To dismiss the Alliance would be a mistake. It may look like the provisional wing of the landed gentry, but since it started broadening its political horizons it has also broadened its base of support. Today, in Bournemouth, it will take pride of place at the working country fair, a Tory-backed event to show the party's concerns about the plight of rural Britain that will be attended by William Hague. It boasts 80 full-time staff, including 10 regional press and public relations officers, 90,000 individual members at £35 a time, and 300,000 affliated members. All this is maintained with an annual budget of £4.5m, from a range of very wealthy members. "You can easily raise a few thousand pounds at a hunt meeting. There's a lot of money swilling around," says one former Alliance employee who did not wish to be named.

Politically it has now become the most vocal and visible opponent of a weakened government. "They have the potential to be a very potent, electoral force," says Michael Jacobs, the general secretary of the Labour-supporting Fabian Society. "At the moment they have the capacity to mobilise opinion against Labour."

Last week, nine months after Jackson wrote to Straw, on an overcast autumn day in Brighton and an altogether radically different political climate, the Countryside Alliance marched on the Labour party conference with a spring in its step.

To the backing of whistles and hunting horns one member carried a placard stating: "I love the countryside, I fear my government." One was dressed as Tony Blair with a noose around his neck. Numbering more than a thousand they strode purposefully in smart sweaters and pressed jeans, angry yet orderly, between metal railings and a considerable police presence, as Labour delegates in suits looked on bemused, as though viewing exhibits in a zoo.

The day before, deputy prime minister, John Prescott, had rallied the conference with a blistering attack on the party's rural opponents. "Every time I see the Countryside Alliance and their contorted faces, I redouble my determination to vote in the House of Commons to abolish fox-hunting for ever," he raged. Now the hunters and their allies are coming in for the kill.

It is a stunning revival for an organisation which began life as a hybrid of three minority-interest groups - the British Field Sports Society, the Countryside Movement and the Countryside Business Group. The Countryside Movement was set up in 1995, with the former Liberal leader Sir David Steel as its executive chairman. "The aim was that it would be a campaigning organisation rather than a membership organisation, that dealt with issues affecting the countryside in general," says Alex Armstrong, deputy chief executive of the Alliance who used to work for the Movement. "But it was not terribly successful."

Despite several wealthy backers the Movement, which was pro-hunting and received donations from the gun lobby, heavily outspent its budget and had to be rescued with £1m from the Duke of Westminster.

The Countryside Business Group was set up by the American financier, Eric Bettelheim, to raise funds to support the hunting lobby. Both were new organisations set up in response to, or anticipation of, a Labour government with a manifesto commitment to ban hunting. Neither had a particularly large following or could claim any great successes other than their ability to raise funds.

The linchpin to the Alliance's creation and continued political presence is the now-defunct British Field Sports Society - an organisation dedicated to defending the right to hunt which bequeathed its offices to the Alliance. "Two limping organisations were swallowed up by the BFSS," says a former Alliance employee . "It was effectively a takeover. The idea was to wrap up hunting in the warm glow of the countryside and everyone will love it."

What followed was a skilful exercise in rebranding which coincided with a dramatic slump in the fortunes of rural Britain. Sheep were being auctioned for seven pence each; farmers were selling pigs for a £20 loss; hens couldn't be given away, suicides rose. These problems may or may not have been caused by the government, but it was to the government they looked to put things right. "Rural people feel they have been victimised," says Nigel Henson, director of communications for the Alliance. "They feel that urban Britain couldn't give a monkey's about them."

The Alliance, with its recent makeover, was perfectly poised to step into the void and bring together the disparate discontent in the countryside.

Initially it fared poorly. Its first national demonstration in London in 1998 was large but undermined by a poll which revealed that 80% of the demonstrators were Conservatives, leaving the government with few concerns about losing votes. No sooner had they arrived in the capital than stories emerged of employers coercing their employees into making the trip. If ever there appeared to be a battle between old and new Britain, between the forces of modernism and the agents of privilege then this was it; the squirearchy on parade waging a class war against a culturally metropolitan and ostensibly liberal Labour government

When questioned about rural issues other than hunting, employees would simply make up a position on the spot. "All we knew about was hunting. It was all we cared about too," says one.

Then a change of management followed bitter in-fighting. A few months after the march the newly-appointed head of the Alliance, Edward Duke, resigned after all the regional chairmen demanded his removal. "Our quest to be taken seriously is in tatters," said hunting's in-house journal, Horse & Hound. "We have been torn apart by ambition, power struggles, prejudice and the inability to see the bigger picture."

Faced by a huge parliamentary majority, supporters took to the streets to make their grievances known. Its shambolic determination recalled the hard left of the 80s. It was riven with internal splits, the leadership was constantly denounced by the membership for selling out the cause, and it attempted to emulate the age-old leftist tactic of entryism. Through an organisation called Friends of the National Trust, Alliance supporters' attempts to infiltrate the upper echelons of the National Trust, which banned stag-hunting on its land, have so far proved unsuccesful. When they demonstrated in London two years ago one passer-by shouted: "We subsidise you," while another asked: "Why don't you get proper jobs?" Replace the Barbours with donkey jackets and Labour with the Tories and they are, in many ways, a mirror image of how the hard left behaved and was perceived.

This undoubtedly was the calculation Prescott made when he delivered his speech last week, when he treated the Alliance to the same contempt that Margaret Thatcher showed to CND supporters and miners. "Fox hunters are one of the few enemies the Labour party allow themselves nowadays," says Jacobs.

However, since its early, disorganised days the Alliance has developed policy on everything from pubs to poverty and abbatoirs to employment. Its chief executive, Richard Burge, is a Labour party member; neither he, his deputy, his chairman or Henson are hunters. The key issues for the countryside, Henson admits, are "the demise in the economic and retail sectors which are crippling the social infrastructure". The priority for the Alliance however remains saving the hunt. "If you looked at our membership you will inevitably find a leaning towards people who joined for country sports reasons," says Henson. "The reason we have concentrated on that recently is that it is immediately under threat. The Labour party is going to ban hunting, they are not going to ban rural post offices."

Its project of acting as the hegemonic voice of rural Britain is by no means assured. "We are a new organisation in a period of transition," says Henson. The failure of the Alliance to back the fuel protests, on the grounds that it would alienate it from public opinion, was received angrily by many in rural areas. "There are completely contradictory forces involved," says Jacob. "There is no coherent base apart from geographic proximity."

Some wish it would ditch its support for the hunt in order to broaden its appeal. Others are concerned that it is diluting its central purpose to save its political skin. "People think they are preparing for life after fox- hunting," says a former employee. "But it won't have a life after fox- hunting. Most of its members joined to save the hunt. When that goes they'll leave." In the Daily Telegraph last week, the publisher of Gun Trade News, Simon Baseley, warned: "Members and others should be rightly suspicious of the Countryside Alliance re-branding. This has given rise to a feeling that the alliance has at some level accepted that the fight for hunting is lost and is beginning to prepare a retreat to a better prepared position."

None the less they represent a serious problem for Labour. Tory dominance in rural areas is much overstated and the countryside is an ideal battleground for Hague to recoup some of its losses. While hunting, and particularly hunters, remain unpopular with the general public, rural Britain is not. The more sucessful the Countryside Alliance becomes at presenting itself as the voice of impoverished rural Britain, the more sophisticated Labour will have to become about the manner in which it deals with them. To dismiss them will be perceived to be dismissing the countryside.

Henson's claim that the Alliance is "resolutely apolitical" is laughable, but it remains to be seen just how party political it will be come the election.

From the podium Prescott asked why they weren't outside the Tory party conference "when Tories were shutting 2,000 post offices, selling off 10,000 council houses, ending bus services and closing village schools". The Alliance replied that they simply did not exist then. "If we did then of course we would have protested." Given the present complexion of its membership, it is doubtful they would have attracted much support for such a protest against a Conservative government. None the less, given the remit it has claimed for itself, it is doubtful it would have got away without organising one.

"We're looking at the seats that are swingable to persuade the candidates to get real about the countryside," says Henson, referring to Prescott's speech. "But if that's the way the Labour party is going to act they are not going to get much support from us."

Says Michael Jacobs: "They need to treat the Countryside Alliance with a level of maturity that the Alliance itself arguably does not have." That, at least, is a warning Labour would do well not to wait nine months to heed.

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